Some say Remainers should stay silent. I don’t agree…

Some say Remainers should stay silent. I don’t agree…
Ian Birrell
13.03.17

 

The prime minister is poised to lead her people in massed leap over a cliff edge as she triggers Article 50 to detach Britain from the European Union. Some might say like lemmings, since these small voles are famous solely for their supposedly suicidal propensity to hurl themselves in huge numbers over precipices. Although in reality, their dismal public image arises from faked film footage after some Disney documentary makers pushed them over the edge.

 

So yes, perhaps we are like lemmings – if only in the fakery and falsehoods that have pushed us to this treacherous place. Never forget those promises held aloft to slash immigration, save billions and hand £350m a week to the health service. Nor less the snake oil sellers who promised a brave new world to voters. Yet even now they struggle to articulate its shape beyond platitudes about ‘taking back control’. Little wonder they lash out viciously at those that point out dangers ahead or question their arrogant stance towards our neighbours.

 

Their hypocrisy is symbolised by pub owner Tim Martin, a major backer of Brexit. Five months ago this bumptious boss of Wetherspoons was threatening European leaders with a slump in sales of French wine, German beer and Swedish cider if they adopted a belligerent stand on our exit negotiations. Now he bemoans how Britain cannot afford to slow immigration, even demanding a special deal for EU workers. As one wag pointed out on Twitter, perhaps we could call this ‘freedom of movement’.

 

The EU has to take a tough line with Britain if it is not to fall apart. It simply cannot allow too attractive a deal, especially with crude populism on march across the continent. Yet Martin is far from alone in his attempts to backtrack. Listen to loud squeals from liberal leavers that they never sought huge immigration cuts despite jumping into bed with a bunch of xenophobic nationalists. And look how they rail against Theresa May for her failure to fix the future status of Europeans living in Britain, despite doing so much to ensure these people – like millions of Britons in Europe and most businesses – face such sudden uncertainty.

 

The EU has to take a tough line with Britain if it is not to fall apart. It simply cannot allow too attractive a deal, especially with crude populism on march across the continent. Yet Martin is far from alone in his attempts to backtrack. Listen to loud squeals from liberal leavers that they never sought huge immigration cuts despite jumping into bed with a bunch of xenophobic nationalists. And look how they rail against Theresa May for her failure to fix the future status of Europeans living in Britain, despite doing so much to ensure these people – like millions of Britons in Europe and most businesses – face such sudden uncertainty.

 

This issue of immigration lies at heart of our nation’s lurch into the precarious unknown. The prime minister instantly interpreted the referendum as backing for her tough line on border controls rather than simply a decision to leave Brussels, so is forcing Britain into rock-hard Brexit. She also wants minimal debate on her decisions. Clearly taking back sovereignty means a twisted form of democracy that eliminates parliamentary discussion, let alone the possibility to change minds.

 

Yet migration must continue in high numbers unless the Prime Minister wants to wreck the economy as a means of reducing numbers seeking to move here for work. Pret a Manger, a great British corporate success story, pointed out last week just one in 50 of its job applicants are citizens of this country. ‘If I had to fill all our vacancies with British-only people I would not be able to fill them because of lack of applications,’ its director of human resources warned MPs.

 

Similar concerns can be heard in many other sectors – although in the current climate, few business leaders want to put heads above parapets for fear of being branded ‘enemies of the people’. Yet those who promoted Brexit only waffle in generalities rather than ever specify which immigrants they seek to kick out: do they mean the carers or nurses, doctors or scientists, students or techies? Meanwhile families are torn apart, refugees sent back to repression and children fleeing war turned away in doomed efforts to hit a daft target.

 

Once she pulls that trigger on Article 50, May faces a two-year sprint through a maze of mind-boggling complexity while under heavy fire from all sides. Never mind the creaking health service. Forget the shattered social care system. She knows she will be defined by success or failure of this most momentous issue. As a savvy operator, she will be acutely aware that anyone in a hurry to do a deal starts with a weakened hand. And as MPs on the foreign affairs committee say, it would be ‘serious dereliction of duty’ to depart empty-handed in our current unprepared state.

 

The irony is the next decade may be dominated by this divisive issue, disrupting the economy and with potentially fatal consequences for the union – yet may achieve almost nothing. Britain was a rather marginal member of the EU as a nation outside the euro club and opposed to ever-closer union. Now we may end up like Norway, perched just outside yet still subject to rules governing our biggest market – albeit without any say in their creation. We may have to carry on paying bills to Brussels. And then after all this agony, merely see minor falls in migration while little is done to tackle the issues really causing the discontent that led to Brexit.

 

Some say Remainers should just shrug their shoulders and stay sanguine, secure in knowledge that we never sought this stupidity while watching the Brexit bandits squirm. I do not agree. I care too much for my country, my beliefs, my values and, yes, in the core ideals of European community and the peace this flawed project bought to our fractious continent over my lifetime. It is so easy to throw stones from the sidelines. Far harder to pick a path through the consequent wreckage.

 

Deal or no deal? Who knows. Only one thing is certain as we jump into the unknown: the stakes for this country could hardly be higher.

 

Published by The i Paper (13th March, 2017)